Many years ago, while on vacation in Cyprus, I heard a joke that amused me. I was wondering which side of the road they drove on. I was told: “The Brits drive on the left, the Germans drive on the right, but the Cypriots drive in the shade.” I mean no offence to the inhabitants of that lovely island, which I hope that I can visit again sometime, but it does make me think about the convention of driving on one side of the road or the other …
Broadly speaking, driving on the right is most popular, as it is the norm in the Americas, all of mainland Europe, Russia and Africa. Driving on the left is, however, quite widely represented: UK, Ireland, various Mediterranean islands, Australia, India and Japan. But why is there no worldwide convention?
There was once. Long before the age of the motor car, road vehicles [chariots etc.] drove on the left. It has been suggested that this was too ensure that the driver could confront an approaching enemy to the right and, hence, have his sword arm free. I am not sure that I believe this, as, at times of conflict, is anyone going to worry unduly about the rules of the road? Galloping straight down the middle is more likely!
The persistence of the two conventions around the world must be an irritating problem for car makers. Although I am sure that they optimize production so that left-hand and right-hand drive cars can be produced straightforwardly. This has not always been the case. The Japanese auto manufacturers penetrated the UK and Australia first, as they could do so with minimal modifications to existing designs. When they started to address the rest of the world, left-hand drive models were introduced. At that time the American auto makers were puzzled by their lack of success with selling [left-hand drive] cars into Japan.
I have often wondered about whether there is any intrinsic benefit of one convention over the other. After years of visiting the US, I find swapping over very easy. However, on my recent vacation, I had my first experience of driving a manual shift, left-hand drive car. That took a bit of getting used to. Someone told me that gearboxes wear out faster in left-hand drive cars because the majority of people are right handed and, thus, apply a little more force to the gear stick.
There is a rumor that Napoleon decreed a change from driving on the left to driving on the right – just because he could. This seems credible, as he did have a habit of instigating arbitrary changes, many of which fell by the wayside.
I am not sure if any other countries are contemplating a change. I recall that the last mainland European country [Norway was it?] to change was quite a recent convert. It was in my childhood, so I guess mid-1960s. I have often wondered what the border crossings were like before that change. How did they manage the swapping over of the cars?
Have you heard about the plan for Ireland to change to driving on the right? To make it easy, they are doing it in two stages. First weekend the cars change over; the following weekend the trucks and buses follow suit.